An urban oasis and contemporary ryokan in equal measures, this simply beautiful hotel represents Japanese hybrid design at its finest. Traditional ryokan originally were simple inns on the Tokaido trade route between the original imperial seat of Kyoto and its successor capital Tokyo. Frequently they were sited near hot springs, and offered shelter and sustenance, convivial communal bathing, hospitality and a reassuring sense of homeliness. Such inns flourished on this storied highway in the 17th century but can still be found across Japan, from tiny, tatamimatted lodgings to five-star interpretations such as The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto.
I am not exactly clad in a yukata, penning haiku and organising minuscule buds into an ikebana arrangement in Room 416, but it does feel like a sanctuary of culture and calm. The ensuite is a series of connected areas with a deep ofuro tub, white wallpaper textured with the delicate outlines of blossoms and wooden-slatted floor; the Toto toilet lifts its lid in salute and whooshes like a waterfall. There are cushion covers fashioned from pale pink and silver kimono brocade, honeyed timbers and recurring shippo (seven jewels) motifs of encircled petals.
The view is of the Kamogawa River and there are snowflakes falling like confetti this crisp late-January day. On the low table by the picture window sits a spiky bonsai and dish of flawless strawberries with long stalks, as shiny and sculpted as threaded jewels. A Japanese tea-set promises a perfect serve of sencha while 21st-century falderals of the likes of T2 and Nespresso machines are discreetly present, along with welcome extras such as fragrant Asprey toiletries, a little TV screen in the bathroom mirror, a choice of cotton or fluffy robes, and sumo-sized towels.
The 134-room long and low property opened in 2014 on the site of the historic Fujita Hotel; many of its facilities, such as function rooms and the linked Mizuki restaurant space, are below ground level, with light wells and tall windows facing rock walls and greenery. Guest chambers, including 17 suites and two tatami rooms with futon bedding, are arrayed across four floors, reached via long, unfurling corridors with vertical-slatted walls and washi paper lanterns. With an average size of 50sqm, the accommodation is proclaimed the largest in Kyoto, and aspects are of river, Zen-inspired pocket gardens or a backdrop of the forested Higashiyama mountains, glowing mauve and mysterious at sunset. The design ethos is miyabi, or simple elegance, as interpreted by Hong Kong-based designer Peter Remedios and Spin Studios; the over-arching theme is based on the courtly Heian era, from 794 to 1185, when Kyoto was the most powerful city in Japan and its unassailed centre of culture.
Accordingly, this is a hotel of immense, almost old-fashioned courtesy. Kimono-clad guest experience managers are on hand to advise on itineraries and service staff speak very good English. Macaron maestro Pierre Hermé is visiting from Paris during my stay to oversee his boutique, afternoon teas and rose cream pastries for breakfast. My choice of two of his flavours, nestled in a box, requires an escort to my guestroom and the ritual laying out of the pillowy treats on my windowside table. Tea? Yes please, and amid bowing and gentle laughter and arranging of ceramic cups, I nibble matcha macarons as the winter sun sets over old Kyoto and can think of nowhere I would rather be. Susan Kurosawa is The Australian’s travel editor.